Hey! Where’d I go?
Four months ago, I set out on a pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, from slavery in Egypt to revelation at Sinai, and invited you to join me. About hallway through, I kept going, and even experienced what might be a little revelation. I abandoned you, though. I didn’t call. I didn’t write.
But I do apologize.
Blame it on the emotional and spiritual dishevelment a global pandemic can bring. And blame it, too, on hod, the theme of the fifth week of the counting of the Omer, which is associated, among other traits, with gratitude.
A slam-dunk, I thought.
For years now, I’ve done Jewish gratitude practices throughout the course of the day, beginning with the Modeh Ani (Thankful am I) prayer upon arising, and saying brachot, or blessings, for everything from the clothes on my back to the steadiness of my footsteps. With hod in mind, the plan was to pay even closer attention to opportunities for gratitude.
But to my disappointment, even dismay, this put me in the face of the flatness I’ve often felt in recent times, from which brachot could not be counted on to save me. Sometimes they would lift my spirits, as I noted the waxing of the moon, the refreshing scent in the air after rainfall, the extraordinary confluence of the efforts of humans and the elements in bringing food to my plate. But discomfortingly often, I would feel like I was going through the motions, doing not much more in reciting brachot than exercising my gratitude muscles to make sure they didn’t atrophy. A worthy habit, but hardly everything I was hoping for.
And who wants to report on that in a blog intended to offer encouragement?
Fortunately, it doesn’t end there.
If tried and true practices needed to be granted some slack – after all, how would you like the pressure of being a practice that more people desperately need than ever? – maybe it was time to try some alternatives.
So with that, I present for your consideration, other approaches to gratitude that have helped in recent weeks.
The Eyes Don’t Have It
I had begun a walk through Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the ravines into which it leads, a beautiful urban landscape. And yet, well into the walk, amidst the Norway spruce, silver maple, and mugo pine trees, though I could recognize their beauty, they weren’t lifting my spirits much.
Putting things on pause, I headed to the street for some takeout. And when I was done and about to resume my walk – to push through, as it were – I took a minute to close my eyes and tune in to my other senses.
As my breath offered some settling, the din of traffic was suddenly no din at all, but rather the hum of a human hive on wheels, rushing towards a better moment. The breeze against my bare skin was a cooling balm. My arms and pulsing fingertips were the vessels through which surging rivers of sensation were coursing, proclaiming aliveness. A thunderous clunk jarred my eyes open, and I saw a car pulling an empty, clattering trailer. Something about it made me happy, and it didn’t matter that I had no idea why.
I stood, closed my eyes again, followed my breath for a little while, and resumed the walk, everything seeming both deeper and lighter, every footstep feeling sacred, every vista a gift. I wanted to feel this way forever, but I more or less knew better, and as the good feelings eventually started to leave, rather than grasp for more, I felt grateful to have experienced them at all.
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You
A different day, a different walk.
I’m taking a new route out of the ravine, something I’d imagined might be a shortcut, along what turns out to be a noisy road on a searingly hot day. I want the unpleasantness to be over as quickly as possible.
But I’ve learned that sometimes the best way to speed things up is by slowing them down. Inhabiting the moment instead of pushing it away.
So with each footstep, I say, “Thank You.” And again. “Thank You.” I keep repeating it. And with each “Thank You,” I am enlivened by things I’d been unaware of only moments earlier – a soft breeze rustling some leaves, birdsong on my left and birdsong on my right, the feel of a pebble under my foot, the glint of sunlight off a door handle.
“Thank You. Thank You.”
I’m in the ravine on a morning where sadness is a stronger force than I would like, and the walk isn’t making me happier. I could turn back, but I trust that forward is best, perhaps by way of the catharsis of a good cry.
Perching myself where the brook runs over some rocks, I let tears flow. Hitbodedut or self-seclusion, comes to mind.
The version of hitbodedut taught by Rebbe Nachman of Bratzslav is to find a spot in nature and pour one’s heart out to God in an uncurated, stream-of-conscious way. The rationalist in me wants to roll its eyes, but the rationalist in me has proven it doesn’t have all the answers. So if it’s on my mind or in my heart, I say it. I talk and plead and thank – by the rocks, on a footbridge, on a path.
I feel some loosening, some healing. Something sustaining.
Baruch Atah Adonay, I say, eloheinu melech ha’olam, ha’notein la’yaef ko’ach
Blessed are You, source of all being, who grants strength to the weary
Baruch Atah Adonay, I add, eloheinu melech ha’olam, sh’asani Yisrael
Blessed are You, source of all being, who has made me of the people yis-ra-el. A god-wrestler.
Yes, thankful for all of this. Even as it becomes clear that, at the moment, gratitude practice is only carrying me so far. Fortunately, I’ve been given capacity – which I take less for granted now than ever – for finding other sources of strength, other ways of serving that I must now explore.
Baruch Atah Adonay, chonein ha’da’at
Blessed are You, source of all being, who bestows knowledge.
Well, I like to think I’ve done a solid job here of illustrating how difficult accessing gratitude can be at times like these, and what might help. But I’m most definitely a work-in-progress on this. Care to offer a guy and his followers suggestions or counsel on tapping into gratitude or what to do when it’s elusive, based on your own experience?